By Carol M. Bareuther, R.D.
Captain James “Bubba” Carter’s father didn’t want his son to become a sportfishing captain. No way. “No money in it,” Eddie Carter told his 18-year-old son, who by then already had his captain’s license. So the two shook hands on an agreement: Bubba could run his dad’s boat for the summer if he’d do a year of college. So come fall, off Bubba went to the University of South Carolina.
“There were 11 of us marine biology students going over to Pawleys Island digging mud,” says Bubba. “I wanted to study fish instead. The school didn’t have a boat, so for our six-week lab, I got them to pay for a charter, a 36-foot Thompson trawler T-craft. As soon as we got that plankton in a jar, I’d have 30 ballyhoos rigged and ready. We’d spend the rest of the weekend fishing, camping out in sleeping bags on the floor at my mom’s house at night. The professor soon caught on to us. Then he started going fishing with us.
“One weekend he asked me, ‘What do you want to do with your life?’ I told him marine biology. ‘So,’ he says, ‘You want to spend the next five years getting your degree, then another five years for a doctorate, just so you can look for someone like you to take you out fishing?’ That was John Dean. He’s since chartered me just about everywhere I’ve fished,” says Bubba, who in 2019 earned the prestigious Tommy Gifford Award from the International Game Fishing Association.
Born in Savannah, Georgia, Carter moved with his family to Hilton Head, South Carolina, when he was five years old. His fishing fate was sealed a few years later when he started mating for his dad, who ran a sportfishing charter boat in the summer and worked in construction building homes in what is now the Sea Pines resort community in the winter. For Bubba, it was love at first bite.
“We’d head a couple of miles offshore on half-day trips and fill the fish box with a thousand pounds of fish—Spanish mackerel, black bass, red snapper. It was like a science project to me. I kept asking my dad, ‘What’s this one?’ ‘What’s that one?’ My Dad is the one who introduced me to the magic of the ocean,” Bubba says.
Fishing turned serious for Bubba when he was 14 and started working for his dad’s friend, Capt. Buddy Hester. Hester, a 25-year marine drill sergeant, started the first charter business out of the Palmetto Bay Marina. Bubba remembers groveling to Hester for the first three weeks of work. Hester, he says, knew how to teach. He taught Bubba a lot about boating and even more about life.
COMING OF AGE
“I got my captain’s license on my 18th birthday, and I needed Buddy to sign off on it,” Bubba explains. “This was the 70s and everyone had long hair back then, including me. Buddy told me he’d sign off on my time when I got a haircut. So I went to Joe the Barber, got my hair cut and took my new hairdo to Buddy. He wouldn’t sign. He told me to get a real haircut.
“By now everything was closed, but my sister had a friend who cut hair and she gave me a GI flat top. I went back to Buddy, and he said, ‘Give me the pen.’ I asked him why it was so important for me to get a haircut. He said he wanted to see how bad I wanted my captain’s license.”
BUBBA’S FIRST BOAT
After his short college stint, Bubba headed to West Palm Beach, Florida. He started running the Honey Cay on weekends and freelancing on boats when mates called in sick. He soon wanted a boat of his own and got a bite on a 37-foot Rybovich. The owner had lost the boat in a divorce and donated it to the University of Miami for $1 with instructions that the school keep it for 11 months and then auction it. Late on a Friday afternoon, the school was just about to buy the boat for $25,000 when Bubba offered $35,000. That next Monday, Bubba’s offer was accepted.
“I didn’t even have the $3,500 at the time for the 10 percent down, so my dad wired me the money. I had 10 days to get the rest. I went to every bank in Palm Beach and Miami but got laughed out when they saw a 22-year-old and a boat that was the same age. I then went up to South Carolina and took out 90-day notes for 14 months until I paid the boat off. I fished it off South Carolina, Palm Beach, and over in the Bahamas. Eventually, I sold it for $75,000. It taught me about business, financing and contracts. I could also say I owned a Rybovich,” Bubba says.
FROM MEXICO TO AUSTRALIA
Bubba caught the traveling bug when his friend Dean Jacobs got a job on a boat in Cozumel, Mexico, and invited Bubba when the owner said he needed another mate. As Bubba says, “The choice was South Carolina or Mexico. I’d seen that movie. I wanted to get in with the big guns, so I went.” That boat was the Sting, a 46-foot Bertram, and Bubba started billfishing—sailfish, marlin—in a big way. Big indeed. Bubba says his favorite billfishing destination is Australia. He spent two three-month seasons there. The first season, in 1983, he caught five grander-plus black marlin while running the Sandpiper 3. The second season, in 1986, he caught six granders from the Kanahoi. One of these was his career largest of 1,234-pounds.
“We were out there immersed on a mothership in the Great Barrier Reef. We’d get up, catch bait, go diving and finally get baits in the water around noon or 1 p.m. Then we’d fish until 5. We ended up with 11 granders in two seasons. The size of the black marlin there [was] unbelievable. It’s the Jurassic Park of marlin fishing. Everybody who has dedicated their life to this sport needs to fish Australia at least once,” he says.
COSTA RICA CALLS
Bubba first fished in Costa Rica in 1985, out of Flamingo, well before the opening of the Los Sueños Resort & Marina in 2001.
“We fished Costa Rica a few times and the owner of the Merritt 42, CMC, said ‘Wouldn’t it be great to bring the boat.’ I told him ‘Give me $10,000 and 21 days, and I’ll get it there,’ ” says Bubba, who set out from Palm Beach and went through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast in the spring of 1986.
WHERE IS HE NOW?
Bubba left in 1997 to live in Venezuela for nine years and fish the La Guairá Bank. It was here while helming Rob Ruwitch’s 46’ Sharkey’s Revenge, that Bubba became one of only a handful of captains to achieve a fantasy slam—a blue marlin, white marlin, sailfish, spearfish and swordfish all in one day. While based in Venezuela, and several years before returning to Costa Rica permanently, Bubba migrated with the marlin from Aruba up to the Dominican Republic spending several summers fishing in St. Thomas.
He’s also fished Isla Mujeres, Panama and Cabo San Lucas. Bubba moved back to Costa Rica in 2010, where he’s charter fished out of Los Sueños as the captain/owner of the Tijereta, a 43’ Island Boat Works custom built in North Carolina.
THOUSANDS OF BILLFISH
Bubba caught his 20,000th billfish in 2014. He’s since upped that number to 30,000 in 2020, and the count is ticking as he continues to charter fish. “Blue marlin is the king of the sea. It’s what really blows my skirt up. They’re like sailfish on steroids. The size, aggressiveness and sheer power. Sure, sailfish are fast and the bite’s pretty. But the bite on blue marlin is OMG. White marlin light up and eat and are exciting, but it’s not like the in-your-face explosion of a blue marlin,” he says.
Catching 85 sailfish in a day and 28 blue marlin in a day, both off Costa Rica, are career highs, in addition to Bubba’s Fantasy Slam in Venezuela and 11 grander black marlin in Australia. The sailfish jackpot happened in April 2014, when Bubba put his customers on 151 bites, of which they caught 85. It was 2019 when the Tijereta’s charter clients released a bonanza of 28 blue marlin. It’s the seamounts, he says, that make the billfishing so spectacular off Costa Rica.
MATES & MENTORS
What makes a good sportfishing captain, Bubba says, is dedication. That means going out for live bait, being the first one off the dock, and fishing more days than anyone else. The same is true of the crew.
“Mates are who make you look good. Take Dean Jacobs. We call him Bulldog. We were friends from Hilton Head, and he’s fished in West Palm Beach and Costa Rica. He knows how to keep the boat in perfect shape and could rig natural baits like mackereland mullet for hours,” he says.
Bubba’s mentors included legendary Oregon Inlet captains such as Chip Shafer and Omie Tillet, and West Palm Beach captain Gary Stuve, who introduced Bubba to bluefin tuna fishing. He says it was the way they could read the ocean, their passion, and energy, that made him want to captain like them.
KEEPING UP WITH THE TIMES
Instinct and a sixth sense on the seas is a time-honored trait in most great sportfishing captains. However, today’s professionals have the advantage of state-of-the-art technology. Bubba remembers the days when Loran wasn’t available in the Bahamas, and he’d be lucky to get a GPS reading every hour. Now, between radar, sounders and sonar, it’s a different ballgame.
“Going up against a boat with sonar is like quail hunting without a dog,” says Bubba. “It’s sad; you have to spend $100,000 in equipment just to be competitive in a tournament, but if you have the money, do it. At the same time, reading the color of the water, fishing the contours and looking for birds is still essential, or you’re just driving around hoping to get lucky.”
Up next, Bubba still may follow up on a dream he had pre-COVID-19 pandemic. That is getting a mothership, heading north to Mexico’s Magdalena Bay and from September to December fish immersively for big striped marlin, and lots of them. The rest of the year he’ll continue to fish out of Los Sueños. He’s hopeful the mates will run the boat a little more often, that he can get a place in the mountains where he can see the ocean and sunsets and that he can still do what he loves: seamount fishing for billfish. As he says, captains that love what they do don’t retire, they expire